The NBA Most Improved Player award may not be as illustrious as the NBA MVP award, but it often is a forecaster of the league's next generation of elite players.
Years ago, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Gilbert Arenas all graduated from winning the award to routinely filling out All-Star rosters. In fact, two early-season favorites for this year's MVP, Paul George and Kevin Love, are former winners of the award.
The front-runners so far this season include several first-round picks out of Kentucky, a trio of 76ers and an identical twin. But there's also a host of other viable candidates, making this year's race difficult to forecast.
They were judged by their performance so far in the 2013-14 season as compared with their outputs from the 2012-13 season. Both offense and defense were considered, as well as the players' general roles for their teams.
But enough prologue. Let's get to the list.
Arron Afflalo, Shooting Guard, Magic: The former UCLA Bruin has always been a capable NBA player, but this season, Afflalo has reached new heights. He is averaging over 21 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.
Jodie Meeks, Shooting Guard, Lakers: In Kobe Bryant's absence, Meeks has taken on much of the scoring burden, posting 12.8 points per game, a five-point increase from last year.
Gerald Green, Shooting Guard, Suns: The Suns guard has gone from blowing out cupcakes at the rim to raining threes from beyond the arc (with a two-year hiatus in Russia in between).
2013-14 Stats: 10.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 50.3 FG%, 14.9 PER
2012-13 Stats: 0.9 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.2 BPG, 23.8 FG%, 8.8 PER
Miles Plumlee was an afterthought on last year's Indiana Pacers roster. He logged just 55 total minutes for the entire season, and he did not appear in a playoff game.
But Plumlee has been reborn on the Suns, where he is a nightly double-double threat.
He won't rack up the highlight-reel plays, despite the two-way prowess on display in the above video. But he's taking ownership of some solid post moves while providing serviceable defense on the other end.
"There is nothing special about Plumlee's game...but he is beginning to show signs that he can attack defenders with some jabs and a quick step and draw fouls, which is great," says David Thorpe of ESPN, who called him the most improved player of the 2012 draft class (subscription required).
2013-14 Stats: 9.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 54.8 FG%, 19.6 PER
2012-13 Stats: 6.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 49.7 FG%, 18.5 PER
Jordan Hill has been a major reason why the Lakers have stayed afloat as they wait for Kobe Bryant to return from his Achilles tendon injury.
He is fourth in the league in offensive rebound rate, according to ESPN (subscription required), a statistic that is indicative of the energy and hustle he brings to the court.
A perennial bench player, Hill has assumed the starting power forward role for the Lakers and rewarded them with four double-doubles in his nine starts. Perhaps Hill is finally cashing in on the potential that made him a 2009 lottery pick.
Hill ranks lower on this list in part because of his less certain future compared to other candidates. With Bryant's return imminent, Hill could play a more reduced role on offense.
2013-14 Stats: 10.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 53.9 FG%, 19.6 PER
2012-13 Stats: 5.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 45.7 FG%, 17.1 PER
Does any one play better epitomize Terrence Jones' contributions on both ends of the floor than this video from the Rockets' blowout win over the Hawks?
Jones denies an aggressor at the rim, a nightly scene for the emerging shot-blocker, and then flies high down the court for the jam, utilizing his monstrous 7'2" wingspan.
It's this kind of play that allowed Jones to swipe the starting power forward role for the Rockets. Since the promotion in mid-November, he's averaging 14.0 points and 7.8 rebounds a game while shooting 56 percent from the floor.
The best part about Jones is that we probably have only seen the beginning of his ascent toward the NBA elite. He can protect the paint, run the floor and even shoot from the perimeter (9-of-19 from downtown so far this year.)
In one year he went from a bench player to a starter. By this time next year, we could be talking about a perennial All-Star in the making.
2013-14 Stats: 13.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 43.3 FG%, 13.9 PER
2012-13 Stats: 2.6 PPG, 1.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, 38.4 FG%, 9.3 PER
Apparently the Grizzlies should have given Tony Wroten at least one start last year.
In his first career start a few weeks ago against the Rockets, Wroten had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He became the first player ever to record a triple-double in his first career start.
Wroten's contributions have far exceeded a single game, though. He has scored in double figures in 11 of the 15 games he's played this year, including a career-best 24 on Friday against the Pelicans.
At 6'6", he is big enough to defend both guard positions and even a small forward, but he still possesses the agility to take defenders off the dribble on offense. Watch him split two defenders and accelerate to the bucket in the video above.
Philly fans would probably like to see Wroten score more efficiently—he's 54th out of 67 qualifying shooting guards in true shooting percentage, according to ESPN (subscription required)—but at age 20, he has many years ahead of him to hone his game.
2013-14 Stats: 13.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 50.3 FG%, 81.1 FT%, 20.8 PER
2012-13 Stats: 8.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 40.7 FG%, 73.2 FT%, 12.6 PER
How can you explain such a significant improvement in field-goal percentage for Markieff Morris between this year and last? Shot selection.
Check out some of his shot charts from this year as compared to those from last year for the big man, courtesy of Vorped.com. While he still relies on perimeter shots for a large portion of his scoring, he's attacking the basket instead of settling for jumpers, as seen in the above video.
The advantages of such a game plan are twofold.
First, Morris is sinking more high-percentage shots. But he's also getting to the charity stripe more often, where his 81.1 free-throw percentage is good for fifth in the league among qualifying power forwards, according to ESPN.
Morris' inconsistency keeps him from cracking this list's top five. After a four-game stretch in which he scored 22.8 points per game and earned the Western Conference Player of the Week recognition, he scored a total of 17 points over the following four games.
2013-14 Stats: 21.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 46.5 FG%, 16.5 PER
2012-13 Stats: 13.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.3 APG, 41.9 FG%, 12.1 PER
After notable year-by-year improvements since he was drafted second overall in 2010, Evan Turner has exploded into a dynamic scorer in 2013.
Like Morris, Turner credits his offensive upgrades to a new propensity to attack the rim.
“I’m getting to the line more, driving, my midrange is getting better, my shots are going in,” Turner said, via Christopher A. Vito of the Times Herald.
Turner takes too many threes for someone who only makes them at a 21.7 percent clip, and he is subject to defensive lapses, as articulated here by Philly.com's Rich Hofmann Jr.
But his newfound identity as an excellent scorer has elevated his value.
His first four years have shown a pattern of advancement in his skills. Today, 21 points is Turner's nightly average. In two years, it could be a subpar performance for the athletic forward.
2013-14 Stats: 20.3 PPG, 6.3 APG, 1.9 SPG, 51.1 FG%, 24.5 PER
2012-13 Stats: 8.5 PPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 44.5 FG%, 17.5 PER
Perhaps the only thing keeping Bledsoe from a higher ranking is the bruised shin that cost him six games recently.
Otherwise, the former Kentucky Wildcat has propelled himself into the discussion of top-tier point guards. Only Chris Paul has a higher player efficiency rating at the point guard position, and Bledsoe is fourth among point guards in true shooting percentage at 61.9.
Bledsoe's breakout season probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to fans who watched him closely last year. Although he was stuck behind Paul in the Clippers' rotation, he thrived in the limited opportunities he received. Given the chance to run an offense in Phoenix, Bledsoe has proven he can take on the heavier workload and has been a key part to the Suns' surprisingly competent start.
Now that Bledsoe is back from the shin injury, he has a legitimate chance to take home the NBA Most Improved Player award.
2013-14 Stats: 16.5 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 52.8 FG%, 47.5 3P%, 20.8 PER
2012-13 Stats: 11.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 46.4 FG%, 35.6 3P%, 16.0 PER
Maybe having three of the top seven most improved players in their starting lineup is the reason the 76ers haven't absolutely tanked this season, as many thought they would.
Spencer Hawes has been a revelation for the 76ers this year. He's tied for fifth in the league with nine double-doubles so far, rubbing statistical elbows with the likes of Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph.
He's also fifth among centers in total rebounding, despite having an excellent long-range game that sometimes keeps him out of the paint on offense. He's nailed 28 threes this year, 17 more than any other center, and is knocking them down at almost 50 percent, a remarkable feat for a big man.
Hawes' defensive abilities are lacking, which keeps him from climbing to the top of this list, especially since he plays a key defensive position. But as far as offense goes, few centers have showed the proficiency and versatility that Hawes has this season.
2013-14 Stats: 12.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 46.6 FG%, 14.5 PER
2012-13 Stats: 8.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 46.0 FG%, 11.8 PER
Anyone who watched last year's NBA playoffs knew that Lance Stephenson had some talent. He bull-rushed the paint with ferocity and didn't blink when given the assignment of guarding the world's best player in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now Stephenson has added some precision to his game as well. The Pacers offense often runs through Stephenson on the perimeter, where he's exhibited an ability to find the open man. In just six more minutes of playing time per game this season, Stephenson has added more than two assists to his nightly average.
Plus, Stephenson is a resourceful scorer. He still is willing to drive the lane for tough buckets, but he's also shooting threes with more frequency and accuracy than he has in the past.
Throw in his typical physicality on defense, and you're looking at a major reason why the Pacers have the NBA's best record and plans for a championship run.
2013-14 Stats: 19.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 3.9 BPG, 50.2 FG%, 28.5 PER
2012-13 Stats: 13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 51.6 FG%, 21.7 PER
If Anthony Davis played for a better team, we'd probably be discussing his candidacy for MVP, not Most Improved Player.
He is second only to LeBron James in player efficiency rating, and that is just the first of several eye-opening statistics.
When drafted first overall in 2012, Davis was considered somewhat of a question mark on offense. Scouts wondered how well he could create for himself on that end of the floor after being a part of Kentucky's high-flying, star-studded offense.
Davis has provided some definitive answers.
Bleacher Report's own Kyle Neubeck reveals in his article that Davis is first in the league in points per possession for both pick-and-roll sets and in transition. Fouling Davis won't stop him either, as he converts 84.1 percent of his free throws.
On defense, Davis has been everything that was expected and more. With his 7'6" wingspan, he is the Mr. Fantastic of the paint, blocking almost four shots a game and poking away passes. And as a player groomed to be a guard before his immense growth spurt, he has the skills to defend not just big men, but smaller, faster players as well.
Davis is only 20 years old. If he continues performing at this level, the NBA Most Improved Player award could have some impressive company on Davis' trophy shelf in a few years.